Google Co-Founder ​Sergey Brin Doesn't Understand Us And Never Will

Illustration for article titled Google Co-Founder ​Sergey Brin Doesn't Understand Us And Never Will

Sergey Brin lives in another world. Like every other non-gearhead, he doesn't understand us. He doesn't get why we wrench in our garages, spend weekends at track days, or take off in the middle of the night for a ride. He's like your Aunt Martha, except Brin has the power to change the world. And he doesn't make those awesome cookies.

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Brin recently joined his compatriot, Google CEO Larry Page, on stage with venture capitalist Vinod Khosla to chat about where Google is headed.

In many respects, where Google goes, so goes the world, so naturally, the conversation turned to self-driving cars.

Watch the video above (the topic comes in at the 21-min mark), and it's striking to see how Brin looks at the world of driving from a disturbingly fundamentalist perspective.

To Brin's mind, not just cars, but car ownership is inefficient, wasteful, and dangerous. They take up too much space, use too many resources, and, listening to Brin, are an unconscionable blight on society.

Of course, he has some points. Traffic congestion costs us around $120 billion dollars, wastes nearly 2 billion gallons of fuel, and keeps the average urban commuter trapped in a box for over 30 hours each year. But that's just time and money. The real goal is to eliminate the 2.3 million injuries and 33,000 fatalities each year in the U.S.

These are all noble intentions (until you think about how Google will monetize it all), but they're also a utopian vision divorced from reality. And that shouldn't come as a surprise when you consider the source.

Brin looks at the world through an engineer's lens. It's binary: good versus bad, progress versus stagnation. The idea that someone would derive any amount of pleasure from the act of driving is completely antithetical to the society Brin envisions. Add in the fact that he's also the protagonist in a world of his own creation, worth $30 billion, and nestled safely inside the Silicon Valley hive mind, and – with the right (Google) glasses – you can see where he's coming from. Until you can't.

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Illustration for article titled Google Co-Founder ​Sergey Brin Doesn't Understand Us And Never Will

Our reality is radically different from Brin's. We enjoy the drive, we thrive on the involvement, we revel in the experience of focusing on one thing well. It's part of who we are and what we do. Which makes Brin's ignorance that much more astounding.

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You'd assume that anyone that can get lost in something – say, coding – where the world slips away and the only thing that matters is the task at hand, would understand a single-minded passion. From that perspective, the line between Brin and us isn't that obscured. We're tinkers. Shade-tree engineers. Hackers, if you will. We tweak things to make them better. For Brin and Page, it started with search and evolved into an empire. For us, it started with a carburetor and evolved into a 9-second electric Miata.

But that's not the way Brin and his army of engineers, developers, and cheerleaders see it. They look at the world of cars with disdain – an outmoded system that needs to be torn down and rebuilt in their idealistic vision. And everyone has to be on board for it to work.

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Nothing illustrates that fissure between us and Brin better than one of his final comments to Khosla.

"It's also really nice to not have a steering wheel," says Brin. "To not have pedals."

DISCUSSION

clarkma5
NotTryingToBePopular

I'm a gearhead. I'm a civil engineer. And I'm something of an environmentalist. These can be weird things to reconcile.

For a start, when it comes to being an environmentalist, I'm not sold on harping on cars as much as we do. Yes cars are a significant part of emissions and pollution. They've also been the regulatory fixation of emissions reduction for decades, and while there are still gains left to be made, I think it's something of a game of diminishing returns. I support the continued tightening of CAFE standards and vehicle emissions regs over a reasonable time frame, but those REALLY need to go hand in hand with pollution and emissions controls from other major sources: truck/rail/cargo ship shipping, stationary power production, poor crop/forest management including deforestation, livestock, buildings, cement production, etc. Our society has the image of an automotive tailpipe as the symbol of pollution in many cases and we owe it to ourselves, our society, and our planet to look at all major sources of emissions and mitigate them as best as possible.

Overall, I want to see the US per-household car ownership rate to drop. Probably in half over a few decades if possible. 90% of people don't like or care about driving, they are just getting from point A to point B. Particularly in suburban and urban environments, many of those trips could be handled by effective mass transit...if we had more effective mass transit. There can and should be incentives to businesses to not cluster so much in central business districts and to go out to where people live...just like there can and should be incentives to bring affordable housing to the places where businesses are. Let's cut down on miles driven per commuter. That all leaves us with plenty of road infrastructure (which we just need to maintain and do targeted improvements instead of building tons of new lane-miles) for our needs, and leaves cars as something that's less of a necessity and more of a luxury item...which they should be.

When people say "well I NEED a car to get to work, you can't stand between me and getting to work!" (when they clearly lack the competence to operate a vehicle, or can only afford a vehicle that is a hazard to other road users) and I just want to say...you're solving the wrong problem. In a perfect world, fewer and fewer people should NEED cars. The fact that our solution to transporting the hundreds of millions of Americans who need to get around is to make sure everyone has their own gas powered, two-ton personal pod IS truly wasteful. If you really think about it, cars ARE our mass transit system: and what a ridiculously inefficient and overpriced mass transit system that is.

That ends up being my biggest complaint with Google's approach. The problem is that we've given everyone a big, fossil-fuel powered pod to get around in. So google makes the pod smaller and self-driving and more efficient. Noble goals, but what about ditching the personal pod as a concept for mass movement of people entirely? Google's idea is a half measure...and as the OP noted, it's a half measure that they can monetize and monopolize.